As I walked through the grounds at the Jewish Home for the Aging (JHA), I noticed a man in a wheelchair reading a magazine. It was called "Life Extension."
I had to laugh. Someone must have strategically placed this magazine, like a prop, for the interview I was about to conduct. Talk about life extension! My subject, Sylvia Harmatz, could be the poster child. She's 107 years old.
And for the sixth year in a row, Harmatz will be grand marshal of the Dec. 4 Walk of Ages, a 5K walk/run to raise funds for the JHA's vital services.
She called JHA "a haven for people who have nowhere's else to stay, like me. I sometimes wonder how in the world can they like so many people? They are so good to everyone!"
Since so many people seem interested in living forever, Harmatz is, of course, repeatedly asked: "What's your secret?"
She smiles sweetly, showing great patience: "I don't know."
She doesn't eat meat, but she does like candy, "because I need something to replace the meat."
I told her my 14-year-old son would like that strategy. She laughed.
We sat a moment, and then Harmatz said, "You know, my husband lived to 104."
In fact, Sylvia and Louis Harmatz were married for 80 years.
"He was very much in love with me," she told me, with a smile.
I said maybe it was love, not a special diet, that contributed to their longevity.
"I think so," Harmatz agreed. "We were very close. He wanted to be with me all the time. He never walked with me that he didn't hold my hand. He was afraid I was going to run away from him, because I always walked so fast!"
The couple, who met at a dance in Brooklyn, married in 1921. They continued to love dancing and had a chance to waltz together after they moved to the JHA in 1994.
"We were always together," Harmatz recalled. "He used to get up at night and cover me [with a blanket], to make sure I wouldn't catch a cold. He took care of me. And I don't know why, because I was always very strong and independent. I guess he noticed that I needed to be taken care of. When he passed away, I reassured him that I wouldn't be long, that I'd be coming to meet him soon. But it hasn't been that way."
Harmatz laughed, but looked a little sad.
Born in Hungary in 1898, her earliest memories are of her father, a rabbi.
"He took me everywhere with him," she said. "And I remember him teaching the children who couldn't speak Hungarian, so they could learn too. I loved to sit and listen to him."
Harmatz had her fourth birthday on board the ship to America.
Life was hard in this new country, says Harmatz, but she has fond memories of her parents' relationship.
"My mother was very beautiful and they were very much in love. I used to know when they were going to have relations because [my father] used to leave his yarmulke on the bed." Harmatz said with a laugh. "He was telling my mother, 'Don't forget, I'll be there tonight!'"
Her father died at 42, leaving his wife with nine children. Harmatz started working at 13 to help out, then went to night school to become a nurse.
After marriage, she became a homemaker, raising the couple's two daughters. There are now five grandchildren, 11 great-grandchildren, and four great-great-grandchildren.
In 1935, Sylvia and Louis decided to come West, and settled in Hollywood. "I used to go downtown for seven cents on the Red Car!" Harmatz said.
Her political involvement as an avid Democrat goes at least as far back as Franklin Roosevelt. "Politics was my piece de resistance!" said Harmatz, who would go door-to-door seeking donations. "I knocked at a door once and [asked for] a dollar. The woman says, 'No I'm a Republican.' So I said, 'You don't have to apologize to me, all you have to do is change your affiliation!'"
One thing that pleases Harmatz about being the grand marshal is riding in a convertible. In fact, last year when it rained on the parade, someone suggested they put up the top, but Harmatz wanted it left down.
"I'm not a fussy person, but I do like a red convertible," she said, laughing. I asked her if red is her favorite color. "Yes, I like red. In fact, I'm going to be buried in a red dress with polka dots."
Harmatz has been interviewed by CNN, local newspapers and radio stations. I asked if she likes being a celebrity.
"It's not important to me," she said. "I like it because it's helping the Home. I want the Home to have everything they need. They asked me, 'What do you want for all your trouble?' I said, 'I want a little plaque that says: You too can be involved.'"
For registration and sponsorship for Walk of Ages VI, call (818) 774-3100 or visit www.walkofages.kintera.org.
Ellie Kahn is a freelance writer, owner of Living Legacies Family and Organizational Histories and producer of "Meet Me at Brooklyn & Soto." She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and www.livinglegaciesfamilyhistories.com.
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